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Opening drive

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 11, 2010 11:46 PM

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A dozen reasons why the Patriots will win the AFC East . . .

1. Because the kids are all right. Might as well address the most common theme regarding the 2010 New England Patriots right from the opening kickoff here: Yup, they sure are quite young on defense. You, me, and even Randy Cross were aware of this long before every analyst from the NFL Network to ESPN to the Lifetime channel felt obligated to emphasize, re-emphasize, and then bludgeon to death the obvious. There will undoubtedly be some growing pains, and the conventional wisdom that the Patriots will have to win some shootouts early will probably look pretty danged prescient starting today.

But what's missed in all of the chatter about this fledging defense is that it's the good kind of young, not the Chris Canty/Chris Carter/Sedrick Shaw kind of young. There are 22 first- or second-year players on this roster, and an astounding number of them have the potential to become favorite names in football households in New England.

Devin McCourty, Brandon Spikes, Patrick Chung, Darius Butler, Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate, Ron Brace, Sebastian Vollmer, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski . . . these are all talented young players. It's just a matter of showing it Sunday after Sunday. Yet the way some people talk about the Patriots, you'd think all rookies had to redshirt of something. These kids can play, and it's going to be fun watching the skeptics catch on.

This anecdote probably doesn't help prove my point -- it may even contradict it, which wouldn't be the first time that happened around here -- but I'll share it because it sort of put current state and status of the Patriots in perspective. I was looking something up on Patriots.com a day or two ago and noticed an ad selling those t-shirts with a player's name and number on the back. (I've heard them called "shirsees." I am not going to call them such a thing. It sounds like something Pete Carroll would say.)

There were, I think, nine players available. The usual superstar suspects such as Brady, Moss, Welker were of course for sale for the low, low price of $24.95 plus shipping . . . but then there other plawere Darius Butler, and Julian Edelman, and Matt Light, and Stephen Gostkowski.

And while this is no knock on any of those guys, it did serve as one more stark reminder of how much marvelous, incredibly accomplished talent has moved along the past couple of seasons. Three years ago, those shirts would have been Brady, and Moss, and Welker . . . and Mike Vrabel, and Richard Seymour, and Tedy Bruschi, and Rodney Harrison, and Lonie Paxton. Well, maybe not so much the last one, but you get the point. Lots of good days have gone by.

Hey, we miss them too -- hell, I still miss Ty Law, Willie McGinest, and Roman Phifer. But you know what? Before you know it, those t-shirts and jerseys will say Gronkowski, and Hernandez, and Spikes, and McCourty, and they'll be coveted. They will. I'm buying what they're selling; the kids can play.

BYkJSwg2kKGrHgoH-CkEjlLl3rv2BKiN84N8uw_12.jpg2. Because Gronkowski and Hernandez are reminiscent of Bavaro and Winslow. No, not David Bavaro and Michael Winslow, and yes, we're indulging in a fairly sizable helping of hyperbole here. But when you watch the thunderous Gronkowski drag a linebacker into the end zone during his four-touchdown preseason, you can't help but see flashes of Mark Bavaro, the Giants' legendarily tough tight end from their '80s heyday.

As for Hernandez, it's a Patriots homer's daydream to mention his name in the same breath as San Diego Super Chargers Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow Sr. before he's even played an NFL game. But . . . well, he actually looks like Kellen Winslow Jr. and has flashed some deft moves after the catch during the preseason that might at least get him temporary honorary Winslow status.

Let's just hope he never has the urge to rage about being a soldier.

3. Because Randy Moss is in a contract year. While I'd have few reservations about giving the still-electric 33-year-old a two- or three-year deal sometime before the opening coin flip today, it should also benefit the Patriots to have the quirky (flaky?) receiver in some sort of limbo, if only to keep him fully engaged.

The blessing is that while he remains one of the league's most dynamic offensive players, there are about four reasons -- they go by the names Tate, Edelman, Gronkowski, and Hernandez -- to be hopeful that the Patriots will feature a much more diverse passing attack this season.

Which in a sense could make Moss more dangerous.

Do you follow? Well, just think back to last year: Even with two of the most tough-to-stop receivers in the league in Moss and slot receiver Welker, the Patriots' passing game was too often stagnant and predictable, and the frustrating third option either ended with the ball bouncing of Sam Aiken's hands on a fly pattern or the ball bouncing off Ben Watson's facemask.

Presuming Belichick doesn't bump his head and suddenly feel the urge to implement Mike Tice's infamous "Randy Ratio," this is going to be a much more well-rounded passing offense this year, resulting in Moss getting his catches -- and there will still be plenty -- not forcibly, but in the flow.

4. Because, to borrow a baseball term, they should be very strong up the middle. Vince Wilfork is the fulcrum of it all, arguably the league's premier nose tackle, the least of the Patriots' worries on defense.

It feels like Jerod Mayo has been around for years, but this is just his third season, and we're confident he'll perform like the 2008 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year rather than the player who was never quite right in his sophomore season after suffering a knee injury in the opener. He'll have some help inside: Brandon Spikes is a potential beast with whom Belichick is already impressed.

And safeties Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather, to borrow another baseball term, have great range, though admittedly I couldn't tell you if UZR supports that.

5. Because the offensive line's woes are exaggerated. Sure, they'll miss Logan Mankins's ferocity, and the Patriots will be a better team when and if the two-time Pro Bowler comes to his senses. But the importance of Nick Kaczur -- I vow someday we'll prove he's a distant relative of Max Lane -- was the weak link, and Dan Connolly should be steady in the same way Ross Hochstein was for a couple of seasons.

Depth is an issue, and it will imperative to remain healthy, but this line, which allowed just 18 sacks last year with Mankins at left guard, still features three dependable veterans (Dan Koppen, Matt Light, and Stephen Neal) and an extremely promising behemoth of a tackle (Sebastian Vollmer).

They're going to be better than fine.

BjOiVQwBGkKGrHqYH-CwEszlOrEZBLSpbRoqg_12.jpg6. Because Fred Taylor can still run the football better than any 34-year-old has the right to do. Yeah, he'll probably get hurt -- he usually does. Still, is it silly to wonder if all the time he's missed (46 total) due to injury in his otherwise stellar 12-year career may be benefitting him in a way now? He's been sidelined for nearly three full seasons; maybe I'm looking at this in a warped way, but that may have saved him a lot of wear and tear.

This much we know for sure: He can still run over a DB (get out of the way, Cromartie! You've got 16 3-year-olds to feed), he can still deke a linebacker, he can still the hole with more conviction than any other back on this roster, and he has that awesome instinct or habit of falling forward for a bonus yard or two after he's been hit.

(One more thing -- call this 6.5. It seems like Taylor's been in the NFL forever -- but he was a rookie the same year as Randy Moss. Before that, it seemed like he was at Florida for at least eight years. I'm beginning to think Fred Taylor has been in the football fan's consciousness roughly the same amount of time as Herschel Walker.)

7. Because our Sundays will no longer be spent cursing Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess. I'd rather see 50-year-old Andre Tippett and 52-year-old Don Blackmon try to hold the edge for the Patriots this season than last year's Blunder Twins, Captain Indifference and Sir Invisible-A-Lott.

8. Because Bill Belichick taking on more of the coordinators' chores is a good thing. I'm actually skeptical that he's a whole lot more involved than he was last year; I suspect he's simply positioning himself to take some of the heat off Bill O'Brien and Matt Patricia.

If he is handling more of the coordinating responsibilities on either side of the ball . . . I mean, great, and I don't say that facetiously. I'll take a supposedly spread-too-thin Bill Belichick over, say, an at-the-peak-of-his-powers Dean Pees every single day and twice on Sunday.

9. Because Patrick Chung is on the verge of becoming the Patriots' best safety. He's a vicious hitter, he can run with just about anyone, and by all accounts he puts his work in.

It's only a matter of time before Chung jerseys are commonly sighted at Gillette. (And we're not talking about this guy's old No. 69.)

Once that happens, we'll finally be able to accept the Brandon Meriweather is a useful player who has some Tebucky 2.0 tendencies that we can live with in the team's second-best starting safety.

10. Because if "Hard Knocks" has delivered one undeniable truth beyond all others . . . . . . it's that Mark Sanchez (12 interceptions, 20 picks last year) has the charisma of that fern you keep forgetting to water.

Also, the fern knows the Jets' playbook better and Brian Schottenheimer just loves its leadership skills.

11. Because the Dolphins are counting on a dude named Chad. And as my wife will tell you on her blog youresadlymistakenifyouthinkyouregonnawatchfootballalldaymister.com, that is a guaranteed recipe for disappointment.

12. Because of a certain superstar quarterback -- one whom I suspect may now be answering in the Patriots' locker room to George Costanza's wishful nickname, T-Bone -- who wears this number.

In the Brady era, the Patriots have won fewer than 10 games just once -- in 2002, when they somehow won nine despite employing Steve Martin and Victor Green in meaningful roles on defense.

They'll hit double figures again . . . and if not for a hellacious schedule, we'd be tempted to suggest their number of victories will match the number on Brady's jersey.

Instead, put us down for Edelman-and-5.

That would be the number 11, if you don't have his shirsee.

* * *

Just a reminder to check out the Extra Points blog during the Pats/Bengals game. I'll be live-blogging there from Gillette starting at 11 a.m. Cannot wait. It's football season in Foxborough. 'Bout time.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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